Sunday, March 11, 2012

King Josiah's Reforms (2 Kings 23)

The following quote is taken from

"Josiah and Human Sacrifice - At the LORD's command, a man of God from Judah went to Bethel, and he arrived there just as Jeroboam was approaching the altar to offer a sacrifice.  Then at the LORD's command, he shouted, "O altar, altar!  This is what the LORD says: A child named Josiah will be born into the dynasty of David.  On you he will sacrifice the priests from the pagan shrines who come here to burn incense, and human bones will be burned on you."  (1 Kings 13:1-2 NLT)

    He [Josiah] executed the priests of the pagan shrines on their own altars, and he burned human bones on the altars to desecrate them.  Finally, he returned to Jerusalem.  King Josiah then issued this order to all the people: "You must celebrate the Passover to the LORD your God, as it is written in the Book of the Covenant."  There had not been a Passover celebration like that since the time when the judges ruled in Israel, throughout all the years of the kings of Israel and Judah.  This Passover was celebrated to the LORD in Jerusalem during the eighteenth year of King Josiah's reign.  Josiah also exterminated the mediums and psychics, the household gods, and every other kind of idol worship, both in Jerusalem and throughout the land of Judah.  He did this in obedience to all the laws written in the scroll that Hilkiah the priest had found in the LORD's Temple.  Never before had there been a king like Josiah, who turned to the LORD with all his heart and soul and strength, obeying all the laws of Moses.  And there has never been a king like him since.  (2 Kings 23:20-25 NLT)"

            In order to get a better sense of what is going on in this passage, we need to examine what was going on during the reign of King Josiah of Judah (circa 640-609 BCE).
            At this point in Israel's history, the northern kingdom of Israel had been conquered by the Assyrians, and those who had lived there were exiled and dispersed.  The kingdom of Judah remained, and had fallen into decline.  King Manasseh of Judah (circa 698-642 BCE), King Josiah's grandfather, was responsible for defiling the Temple of God by placing idols of Baal and Asherah inside of it (Deuteronomy 16:21; 2 Kings 21:2-9; 2 Chronicles 33:1-9).  He also practiced child sacrifice in defiance of the Law (Deuteronomy 18:10), by sacrificing his own sons in a fire (2 Kings 21:6; 2 Chronicles 33:6).  He also was responsible for the murder of many innocent people (2 Kings 21:16).  His son, Amon (Josiah's father) was no better when he became king, and he reigned only two years before being murdered by his officials as part of a conspiracy (2 Kings 21:19-24; 2 Chronicles 33:21-25).
            Josiah became king at age 8, after his father was murdered.  He was different than his father and grandfather in terms of his devotion to God, and he made plans to restore the Temple in Jerusalem.  During this restoration, the high priest, Hilkiah, found the book of the Law in the Temple, and presented it to Josiah.  After Josiah's secretary read it to him, he despairingly sent the high priest and some of his officials to a prophetess named Huldah to find out what God had to say regarding the book that had been found.  Huldah proclaimed a message from God that Judah would be destroyed because of the people's idolatry, but that Josiah would not live to see it.
            In response to this message, Josiah immediately began a series of reforms in his kingdom.  Determined to do everything he could to help his kingdom avoid the coming disaster, he committed himself to God's covenant, and the people did the same (2 Kings 23:1-3; 2 Chronicles 34:29-33).  He then began removing all of the idols and pagan priests from the kingdom, starting with the Temple. 
            The question that has been posed is this: Why did Josiah go to such extremes in his reforms?  What was going on at that time that posed such a threat to the kingdom of Judah?  We will attempt to examine some of the major issues that Josiah faced, and that he eliminated during his lifetime.
            First and foremost, there was the major issue of idolatry.  The Israelites' covenant with God demanded that they worship and serve him only.  They were not supposed to worship other gods or fashion idols for themselves.  During Josiah's lifetime, and partially due to the practices of his father and grandfather, the people of Judah worshipped Baal, Asherah, Molech, and a host of other idols, in addition to general worship of the stars and constellations.  This was in direct violation of God's Law, which forbade these practices on several occasions (Exodus 20:3-6, 23; 23:13, 23-24; 34:17; Leviticus 19:4; 26:1; Deuteronomy 4:15-28; 5:7; 6:14-15; 8:19; 12:31; 17:2-7; 27:15; 29:17-18).  God had warned them that if they did these things, it would lead to their destruction: "If you ever forget the LORD your God and follow other gods and worship and bow down to them, I testify against you today that you will surely be destroyed" (Deuteronomy 8:19, NIV).  Idolatry is a sin that God does not take lightly.  This is why Josiah took careful measures to remove and destroy every idol set up in the Temple, as well as everywhere else in his kingdom.
            Another issue was that of cultic prostitution.  Many ancient cultures who engaged in pagan worship, particularly that of Baal, engaged in this kind of prostitution [1].  In some cultures, each man and woman were forced to participate in the ritual at least once, which was believed to stimulate the fertility of the crops, animals and humans [2].  The prostitutes (male or female) would engage in sexual intercourse on a public altar or in front of a shrine, with whomever would give them money in exchange.  The Canaanites would give their firstborn daughters to the local pagan temples for this purpose.  This was another practice that Josiah abolished during his reform; he "tore down the quarters of the male shrine prostitutes that were in the temple of the LORD, the quarters where women did weaving for Asherah. " (2 Kings 23:7, NIV).  Prostitution was forbidden in the Law (Leviticus 19:29; Deuteronomy 23:17-18).  
            Finally, there was the matter concerning the verse that quotes: the killing of the pagan priests on their own altars.  Why would Josiah do this?  To find out, we must examine what went on during worship at the pagan altars in the kingdom of Judah.  It is interesting that the author of does not mention this, since the website (and this section in particular) is focused on the condemnation of human sacrifice: human/child sacrifice was massively performed on the pagan altars in question.
            Worship of Baal and Molech frequently involved the sacrifice of infants, particularly firstborn sons [2] [3].  Sometimes the babies and children would be immediately burned to death in a fire, other times they would first be placed on an altar that had been heated by coals, and then rolled off of it into a burning fire as a sacrifice.  This practice was strongly condemned by God: "They built high places for Baal in the Valley of Ben Hinnom to sacrifice their sons and daughters to Molek, though I never commanded—nor did it enter my mind—that they should do such a detestable thing and so make Judah sin" (Jeremiah 32:35, NIV; see also Leviticus 18:21; 20:2-5; Deuteronomy 18:10; 2 Kings 23:10; Jeremiah 19:5).  (A common question in response is, "If God was against human/child sacrifice, then why did he command Abraham to sacrifice Isaac?"  See my earlier article for a discussion of this topic.)  Baal worship, besides human sacrifice and cultic prostitution, also involved self-mutilation (1 Kings 18:28).
            With all of this in mind, we can conclude that Josiah executed the priests for violating God's commandments against idolatry and child sacrifice.  He was, in essence, doing to them what they had done to countless victims on their altars.   


[1] Daily Life In Ancient Mesopotamia, Karen Rhea Nemet-Nejat, 1998.  Pg. 193. 
[2] Exploring the World of the Bible Lands, Roberta L. Harris, 1995.  Pg. 53, 73, 89.
[3] A History of the Ancient World (Fourth Edition), Chester G. Starr, 1991.  Pg. 156.